On a Friday night in February of 2015, around 300 people headed for Congress Hall, with a brisk southwest wind shaving a few more degrees off what was officially recorded as a 28°F temperature. On the hotel’s oceanfront lawn sat a giant, heated tent, under which Nordic-themed servers clad in large, furry white earmuffs glided between shimmering ice sculptures and storybook winter décor, serving champagne and canapés to guests attired in black tie and ball gowns. It was a spectacular evening—the kind of event that Cape May had never experienced in deepest winter. And while the mood was festive, there was a serious task to complete. The large crowd had assembled for the inaugural Ice Ball, organized by the Fund For Cape May, a public/private partnership nonprofit organization set up a few months earlier by Curtis Bashaw, managing partner of Cape Resorts.
After the cocktail hour, the guests were seated for dinner, after which the servers suddenly stopped clearing and closed the flaps to the tent. Bashaw had taken the stage and started clinking his water glass with a fork to silence the crowd. Then he, Mayor Ed Mahaney and Tom Carroll, a trailblazing Cape May B&B owner and Fund member, laid out the reason for the dinner... Rotary Park was going to be renovated by the city. But in order to make it truly beautiful again, $500,000 was needed to supplement the city’s contribution.
The Fund for Cape May’s 2023 Ice Ball Gala. To learn more about the Fund’s 2024 Ice Ball celebration, visit FundForCM.org
After the brief presentation, Bashaw, inspired by his preacher grandfather, Carl McIntire, took pledges for the various park components by pacing the stage and walking through the crowd, pleading and cajoling. About 20 minutes later, more than $200,000 had been raised for the Fund, to pay for a flagpole, numerous benches and sections of wrought iron fencing. It had been a remarkable evening. With Cape Resorts and a host of sponsors underwriting the costs of throwing the lavish party, 100% of the ticket prices and auction proceeds went directly to the Fund.
“After months and months of research and planning, we raised more money in an instant than had ever been raised in one event in Cape May. The community came together to do something lasting and beautiful. It was inspiring to be a part of that,” said Bashaw.
That Summer, a fundraiser in the unrenovated park put another $75,000 into the kitty. And the following February, another $200,000 was raised from the second Ice Ball. That enabled the Fund to write a check for $500,000 to the city of Cape May, funding nearly a quarter of what became a $2.1 million project for a completely reimagined Rotary Park. Signature features included a sparkling new Victorian wrought-iron gazebo, a wrought-iron, multi-tiered fountain and gorgeous teak and wrought iron benches. The park opened in July of 2016.
Former mayor Mahaney in a recent interview said, “Rotary Park was a very special community project. There needed to be a beautiful spot in the downtown area to enjoy music and special events. And that is what we achieved. Rotary Park also offers a very welcoming gateway into Cape May.”
Mahaney said that planning for revamping the existing park and bandstand, which had deteriorated beyond a state of repair, had begun in 2008. The city council started with a grant of $89,000 from Cape May County, then began squirelling away savings made from the city budget over the following eight years. By 2015, they had established a kitty that could get the park revamped.
“We established a mayor’s advisory committee, which included Curtis as a member, to help get the park designed, in conjunction with students from Temple University School of Environmental Design. We designed the project and then Curtis came to us and said – ‘Mayor, I know you cannot upgrade some of the amenities to the quality we all want because the public would not be in favor of overspending.’ He was specifically meaning the bandstand, the wrought iron fencing, the flagstone sidewalks and highquality benches. And he was right. That’s when he talked about the Fund for Cape May and suggested the fundraiser,” said Mahaney.
Bashaw and the mayor were part of a small group that journeyed to New York City for a fact-finding mission. “We spent an entire day visiting various parks in the city,” said Mahaney. “We looked at how they were laid out, what they were used for, how they were funded and maintained, and what events were hosted. We met with Tim Tompkins, then Executive Director of the Times Square Business Improvement District and former founder and director of Partnerships for Parks in New York City. We even talked to the groundskeepers. We left New York inspired to take the funding model back to Cape May,” Mahaney recalled. The result was a beautifully reimagined Rotary Park that boasted, said Mahaney, “1,146 plants and shrubs. That’s a number I will never forget!”
After the success of Rotary Park, the Fund, governed by a Board of Directors of local influencers that Bashaw recruited, was anxious to tackle another project. Sometime around 2018, a bike path study showed opportunity for park expansion around the war memorial at Columbia Avenue and Gurney Street. The city also obtained a grant from the “100 Cities 100 Memorials” program of the US World War I Centennial Commission to renovate the stately monument. Thanks to the Fund, in collaboration with the City of Cape May, that solitary monument was transformed into Soldiers and Sailors Park and was dedicated on Memorial Day in May 2021. Then-Mayor Chuck Lear recalled, “The Fund for Cape May realized the historical significance and importance in making this often overlooked and difficult to access memorial a place of pause and rest.” But it’s the Fund’s latest collaboration with the city that is really attracting attention. Work began this past winter on installing six decorative arches on the promenade, recreating those that stood on the promenade for the first half of the 20th century, until being destroyed by the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. The project will not only create a beautiful addition to the promenade but will allow for the removal of all the old light poles and electric wires, simplifying the strand and creating a dark sky, better-quality light.
“I think it shows Cape May’s spirit to be just a little more creative and special.”
Historic photos of the Cape May Promenade arches, c. 1907
Cape May’s current mayor, Zack Mullock, said the plan for the arches came after a discussion with Bashaw. “We were speaking about necessary improvements to our promenade. There was no flow, tons of signage, little symmetry. Fundamentally, the asphalt needed to be replaced and we knew we wanted to widen the promenade. Lastly, the city really wants to become more dark-sky friendly. We are on the nation’s largest migratory bird flyway, as well as steps away from abundant marine life. The old 40-foot-high telephone poles and overhead wiring was not dark sky friendly, and they were inefficient, and plainly ugly. Curtis showed us some old pictures. It just clicked. We both said, ‘Why don’t we build things like this today?’”
The arches will, said Mayor Mullock, “harken back to a time when we truly appreciated beautiful architecture. I think, especially at night, it will look magical. While the arches are not the originals, they are a wonderful replica and I think it shows Cape May’s spirit and willingness to be just a little more creative and special.”
The Fund for Cape May raised $180,000 at an August cocktail party on the lawn of Congress Hall to create the first six arches. Then in February of 2023, at the first Ice Ball in four years, Bashaw was back on the stage and this time raised just shy of $500,000 for an additional 14 arches, 80 bike racks and a needed pavilion at the Cape May Housing Authority. With a hoarse voice at the end of the event, a visibly-moved Bashaw gestured towards the crowd and beamed, “What a community! We are so lucky to be here.”
CONCIERGE | THE CAPE RESORTS MAGAZINE